Retelling the Old, Old Story: A Review of "God's Favorite Place on Earth"

This weekend, my darling Lily, six years old, fell from the monkey bars.

"Why weren't you there to catch me?" she asked, genuinely hurt and puzzled, and for a moment, I actually took on that guilt.

Certainly we want to catch the ones we love, to protect them from hurt.

But as I sat with it, sat with her, I realized that the job of the parent is not to constantly catch, but to pick up, dust off, to accompany in suffering—which was exactly, I realized suddenly, what Rowan Williams had tried to say to me a few weeks ago about parenting --

And about God.

Until I lived Lily's story, though, I didn't realize how much it taught me about God's story, our story, the story of faith.

I was grateful for the insight of Rowan Williams.

And I was grateful for a fresh entry into an old, old, story.

Because let's face it: many of us have heard the stories so many times that they don't say anything to us any more.

Jesus did this. Jesus did that.

The challenge of preaching, of Bible teaching, is always to open up fresh insight into Jesus so that we can experience him anew, afresh, and see again how his story is connected to ours.

Sometimes this happens through new translations of scripture. For many, Eugene Peterson's The Message and the translation on which I and many others labored, The Voice, offer fresh language if not fresh ways of understanding these stories.

But in God's Favorite Place on Earth, Frank Viola has hit on a novel way of approaching some of the most important Jesus-stories, one of simple brilliance: exploring the stories of Jesus through the people who perhaps knew him best, his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha in Bethany.

I was not familiar with Mr. Viola's work—he inhabits a different part of Patheosthan I—but I was immediately drawn into his retelling of the stories of Lazarus's death and raising, Mary and Martha at dinner, Mary's anointing of Jesus, and the Ascension as related through the character of Lazarus. Mr. Viola offers creative but faithful versions of the stories, complete with added dialogue and believable character motivations. Witness his telling of the death of Lazarus, where Job-like, he must defend his life against friends who believe the illness is a sign of some secret sin: "I have searched my heart before God, and I do not believe there is anything I have done to bring this illness upon me. I cannot explain to you why I am sick. If I die, I will do so believing that I have not sinned against my God." (77)

These passages provide extra depth of character, making the stories easier for us to enter. Mr. Viola offers thoughtful motivations for these characters, and draws out teaching moments, for in this narrative, he has Lazarus's friends taking him to task for his belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed of God. Other teaching moments emerge from the story, and Mr. Viola alternates a Bible account, his retelling, and spiritual teaching throughout the book, a successful way to engage these stories from a variety of angles.

From the story of the raising of Lazarus, for example, he offers the hard but necessary lesson that God does not exist to answer our prayers or meet our expectations. God's timetable is His own, God's purposes beyond our understanding, as the sidelong reference to Job suggests. Too many of us have a transactional faith, which is both too simple and demeaning to God. It is an inferior faith, as Mr. Viola suggests: "If you've not yet met the God who refuses to meet all your expectations, you will. And how you react in that day will reveal whether you have been worshipping Jesus Christ or Santa Claus. It will show whether or not you love God more than His promises (or your interpretation of those promises)." (117)

The retelling of Mary's anointing of Jesus with ointment also offers lots of teaching opportunities, and it's amazing how well Mr. Viola makes that perplexing and scandalously sensual story come to life spiritually. Mary sees the ultimate worth of Jesus, she offers something of incredible value for the incredible value he represents for her, and she is rebuked for it. Here, Mr. Viola's teaching gets into the day-to-day transactions of the life of the faithful, and becomes perhaps most valuable.

Christians will hurt your feelings, he notes (and Jesus understood this as well—witness the entire 18th chapter of Matthew, the Discourse on Life in the Faithful Community). How we respond to that pain will reveal the depth of our spiritual maturity. Christians are often offended by the actions of other Christians ("Christians are the most easily offended people in the world," he writes, "when we should be the least"). (157) Ultimately, we choose what we will do with the hurt others have offered us. You can choose to be offended and nurture that offense; you can choose to bring your hurt to God; you can offer that pain at the foot of the Cross, "let it go, and move on"; sometimes God (or time) will reveal that we have completely misunderstood the actions of the one who offended. (158)